McCain vs. the Ideologues

There is a new rap against John McCain — that he is a neoconservative ideologue, one “who sees war as America’s ennobling enterprise,” as Matt Yglesias puts it in his comprehensive indictment, “The Militarist.”

McCain’s strident advocacy of the “surge” in Iraq is sometimes seen as political opportunism, an effort to move right in time for the Republican primaries. This interpretation both sells him short and gives him too much credit. McCain has, obviously, used his early and unequivocal enthusiasm for the surge to build bridges with the right, just as he’s eager to use the surge’s alleged success as a bludgeon with which to beat the Democratic Party. But while your typical partisan Republican member of Congress has simply backed Bush’s Iraq policy through all its twists and turns, McCain has always stayed fixed on a policy of maximum force even as the political valence of that policy has shifted. The idea that more U.S. forces should be sent to Iraq began as a line of attack on Bush popular among the hawkish wing of the Democratic Party in 2003 and early 2004, and McCain was happy to break with his party to support it.

This is a characteristically smart analysis, yet it doesn’t allow for the possibility that McCain is responding to changing evidence. Iraq’s woes have been caused by a security vacuum. What Matt is calling “a policy of maximum force” has been, pretty consistently, a policy of shrinking and ultimately eliminating this security vacuum through the use of U.S. military power and political engagement with reconcilable Iraqi political factions, some of them armed, some of them nationalist or Islamist.

Matt’s analysis would have more weight, I suspect, if McCain hadn’t changed his mind as much as he has. For example, it seems that Sam Stein of the Huffington Post, not a McCain admirer suffice it to say, feels rather differently about McCain’s consistency. Stein’s post on McCain’s supposed “flip-flop” on Iraq is highly amusing, and also very telling. As it turns out, McCain once rejected the idea of a long-term, large-scale U.S. presence in Iraq.

“I not only think we could get along without it, but I think one of our big problems has been the fact that many Iraqis resent American military presence,” he responded. “And I don’t pretend to know exactly Iraqi public opinion. But as soon as we can reduce our visibility as much as possible, the better I think it is going to be.”

The January 2005 comments, which have not surfaced previously during the presidential campaign, represent a stunning contrast to McCain’s current rhetoric. They also run squarely against his image as having a steadfast, unwavering idea for U.S. policy in Iraq — and provide further evidence to those, including some prominent GOP foreign policy figures in the “realist” camp, who believe McCain is increasingly adopting policies shared by neoconservatives.

That is certainly one way of looking at it. Another is that the crisis in Iraq looked radically different, and was radically different, in early 2005. Rather than moving in a “neoconservative” direction — neoconservatives were divided, then as now, on the question of a long-term U.S. presence — but in the direction of filling the security vacuum. And filling the security vacuum strikes me as less an ideological notion and more about achieving the objective of a peaceful, stable Iraq. It so happens that McCain rejects the notion, widely held among the actually quite optimistic withdrawalists, that a U.S. withdrawal will lead to political reconciliation.

This notion is as ideological, and as blinkered, as the notion that U.S. servicemembers would be greeted with candies and sweets upon arriving in bourgeois, peace-loving Iraq. One gets the impression that pro-withdrawal forces on the right and left have solved the Iraq issue to their intellectual satisfaction, and so they are impatient with those — like McCain — who continue believe that the security vacuum can be closed, that Iraqi lives can be spared, and that the U.S. and its allies can achieve their objectives in the region. Like those in the reality-based community who “didn’t get” the overpowering intellectual elegance of Feithian geopolitical game-changing, McCain represents a foreign policy center that rejected, in succession, the Rumsfeldian notion that we could crush Saddam and leave, the oil-spot strategy that ignores the communal dimension of the Iraq conflict, and the case for letting Iraqis (and Iranians and Saudis and Syrians) duke it out while we somehow engage in counter-terrorism at a great distance. Instead, he has chosen to take a slow, steady, evidence-based approach to reducing sectarian violence and building mutual trust among Iraqi factions in an effort to build a decent political society.

This was not the view McCain started out with — we’ve all learned a great deal about Iraq over the course of the conflict, particularly the chastened advocates of the invasion.

But we also know that the neoconservative right doesn’t have a monopoly on calcified ideas and on reflexive reactions to what is a difficult challenge without easy solutions. (I realize that these are clichés. I’ll stop using them the moment my interlocutors do the same.) I’m particularly struck by the failure to understand the sophistication and breadth of Iran’s strategy in Iraq, which involves collaborating with a wide array of Sunni and Shia forces in different degrees, but that has also sparked a backlash among Iraqi Shia.